Following up on our previous post...
via NYTimes, THEATER REVIEW | 'VENICE SAVED: A SEMINAR':
By JASON ZINOMAN
Published: April 1, 2009
If talking about a play, especially a bad one, can be more enjoyable than seeing it, which any frequent theatergoer knows is true, then why not make room for both? That’s part of the idea behind the avant-garde experiment “Venice Saved: A Seminar,” a sort-of remounting of Simone Weil’s obscure drama about a 17th-century conspiracy to topple the Venetian republic that builds the post-performance discussion right into the show.
David Levine, the lanky creator and star, whose searching speaking style smacks of the teacher’s lounge, begins by asking the audience at Performance Space 122, which sits around a square table with actors who at first are indistinguishable from ticketholders, to define political theater. One rumpled fellow on the night I attended proposed that all theater is political; another shouted that it just reinforces smugness. And then there was this bracingly honest comment: “Sometimes I think political art out there is just art that isn’t good enough to be art by itself.”
The cast (which includes downtown stalwarts like James Hannaham and Colleen Werthmann) performs snippets from the unfinished play — which Mr. Levine, sometimes awkwardly, tries to connect to the discussions — and takes breaks to summarize its plot and give sketches of Weil’s biography. “She’s very teenage vegan,” Ms. Werthmann says of Weil, the French philosopher, who as a child refused sugar in solidarity with troops in 1914 who were denied rations.
Mr. Levine (the playwright Gordon Dahlquist helped provide discussion topics) seems drawn to the notion that Weil’s life was something of a performance, an idea that informs his own career, which includes highly unorthodox plays like “Actors at Work.”
In that hilariously inspired high-concept piece, he hired actors to just go to their day jobs. In “Venice Saved” the audience truly takes over the show (the running time varies wildly but was three hours when I saw it), leading to some interesting debates about theater and some frustratingly tedious ones. Part of the difficulty is Mr. Levine’s laissez-faire moderating style, which allows for so many definitions of political theater that the discussion can seem like a conversation between people who don’t speak the same language.
In an interview in the journal The Believer, Mr. Levine says the show strives to get at issues in a more direct way than most plays. “Theater usually poses these questions allegorically,” he says. “ ‘Y’all sit back and watch while we present a story about “an artist” suddenly caught between self-censorship and speaking out.’ This is how nothing gets done.”
It’s an extreme statement, one that at its heart is quite hostile to drama. Theater is often a culturally peripheral form today, but that doesn’t mean that a playwright who provokes thought or challenges assumptions through allegory is getting nothing done. “Art,” one thoughtful audience member said, seemingly impatient with the idea that political theater must lead to action, “is there to complicate things.” It was, I believe, a criticism of Mr. Levine, but perhaps a compliment as well.